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Farmers say strawberry crops appear damaged by freezing temperatures

On a chilly Wednesday, grower Joe Gude of Brandon Farms watches for frozen sprinkler heads at this Sydney Washer Road field.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

On a chilly Wednesday, grower Joe Gude of Brandon Farms watches for frozen sprinkler heads at this Sydney Washer Road field.

DOVER — Farmer Joe Gude bent down and touched a little beige bloom.

The leaves around it were deep green, but there in the center, where an infant strawberry should be, was a sickly brownish bud.

He shook his head and sighed.

It'll be about a week until Gude and other farmers can tell exactly how much damage this week's cold snap inflicted on crops, which include strawberries, citrus and vegetables, but it's clear they didn't escape unscathed.

"It's pretty disheartening," said Gude of Brandon Farms.

Gude's early strawberry damage was nothing compared with his pepper crop.

"The peppers are toast," he said.

Walking along the 14-acre wasteland of shriveled red and green bells, Gude explained that his fall pepper harvest always ends with each winter's first freeze. This season, that freeze just came earlier than normal.

For the second day in a row, temperatures around much of Tampa Bay dropped below freezing early Wednesday, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay.

Hudson recorded the coldest temperature in the region at 16 degrees, Clay said. Several spots in and around Tampa Bay hit record lows, including Brooksville in Hernando County, Lakeland in Polk County, Avon Park in Highlands County, Inverness in Citrus County and Bradenton in Manatee County.

Parts of Tampa Bay were expected to freeze again Wednesday night before temperatures climb to the mid to upper 60s today, Clay said. Friday and Saturday should have daytime temperatures in the 70s before another cold front sweeps in Saturday night.

Farmers hope the brief warm-up will allow them enough time to survey their crops. And, of course, get some sleep.

When temperatures approach freezing, farmers turn on sprinklers to protect crops with a layer of ice. It usually works pretty well, unless a strong wind keeps the water from settling evenly on the plants.

Gude thinks most of the damage he's seen is a result of Monday night's gusts, but as long as it warms up, the loss shouldn't be catastrophic, he said.

Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Association said most other farmers are similarly optimistic.

"We feel that there is some obvious damage, but it's pretty minimal at this point," Campbell said.

As for other crops, Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman from the Florida Fruits and Vegetables Association, said most early signs of damage seem to be concentrated in Belle Glade in Palm Beach County, Immokalee in Collier, and across southwest Florida.

Tomatoes left on the vines, peppers and mature sweet corn fared the worst, Lochridge said.

But tomato farmers in Ruskin had mostly finished their harvests by the time the cold rolled through, and local citrus groves seem to have held up through the chill.

"The troubling thing is, what everybody's remarking on, is that this came so early in the season," Lochridge said. "The hope is that we've gotten a couple of cold snaps out of the way, and the rest of the season will be mild," she said.

It's too late for Art Rawlins of Rawlins Tropical fish farm in Lithia.

He estimated that he lost as many fish in the last week as he did during last winter's record 11-night freeze — about 70 percent of his crop.

"We have a number of ponds that are totally dead," Rawlins said. "A lot of them are lethargic, and I don't expect those to live."

For now, Rawlins, like the other farmers, said he's trying to stay positive. It'll be a few days until he can count exactly how much he has left to work with, and he's trying not to get "too depressed."

"We'll just have to wait and see," he said. "It's a tough game."

Times staff writer Ileana Morales and staff photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report.

Farmers say strawberry crops appear damaged by freezing temperatures 12/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 11:36pm]

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